Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Unsolved Mystery Novels; Might Be A Ghost Stories

Posted by John Holbo on 08/09/07 at 10:35 AM

What examples can you give me of works of literature - big famous ones will do nicely; others, too - about which it seems right to say: we don’t know happened. In a fairly consequential way. A Joe Friday, ‘just the facts’, who-is-who, who did what, way. (Yes, of course, there may be cases in which it isn’t clear what counts as ‘the facts’. I’m not a bleating epistemological lambkin, you know.)

There are a number of famous ‘ghost stories’ in which studied ambiguity is maintained betwixt supernaturalism/unreliable narration and just plain insufficient data: Henry James, Turn of the Screw; Herman Melville, The Confidence Man; Toni Morrison, Beloved. (Others?) There’s Pale Fire, of course. I can’t actually come up with many non-supernatural cases, although probably that’s just me.

I gather The Sopranos went out on an ambiguous note, although I don’t know (and don’t tell me what it was.)

I seems to me that maybe short stories are the place to look, but I can’t think of examples off-hand.


Peace by Gene Wolfe.

By on 08/09/07 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes! I should have gotten that one.

By John Holbo on 08/09/07 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t forget E.A. Poe. Certainly one of the originators of the psychologically unreliable first-person narrator (cribbed in part from Godwin’s Caleb Williams, I suspect).

David Lynch has made an entire (wonderful) career on ambiguous narratives. His are perhaps among the most experimental outside outright avant-garde film.

Of course, there is always Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Which of course brings up Robbe-Grillet....

In the cinema, some level of narrative ambiguity (though not necessarily as much as you are asking about) was just about an expected convention of 50s/60s European art film (Fellini, Antonioni, etc.).

(I know that’s more film than literature, but there you have it...).

By on 08/09/07 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The nouveau roman should qualify, esp Robbe-Grillet and Pinget, if I understand correctly.

By nnyhav on 08/09/07 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hoffmann, “The Sand-Man”

Robbe-Grillet, *Jealousy*

William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum”

Every novel by John Hawkes, but especially:

*The Lime Twig*
*Beetle Leg*
*Virginie: Her Two Lives*
*Second Skin*

Every novel by Thomas Pynchon

Faulkner, *Absalom, Absalom* and *The Sound and the Fury*

Auster, *New York Trilogy*

Djuna Barnes, *Nightwood*

By on 08/09/07 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ellis, American Psycho.  Most of Murakami’s novels.

By on 08/09/07 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me most good ghost/horror stories fit this description, and such large numbers of ghost stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fit the description that I’d say it nearly universally applies to all well-written ghost stories from that era. Stories from MR James, Oliver Onions, Wakefield, Blackwood, Machen and Hodgson all fit.

Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana meets some of the description (a murder investigation that never solves the murder).

Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, The Killer Inside Me and The Nothing Man all have grossly unreliable narrators.

Much of Leonardo Sciascia’s work fits.

In terms of film: Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, Welles’ F for Fake, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us.

By on 08/09/07 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An example of an ambiguous short story…

Hills Like White Elephants --E. Hemingway

By on 08/09/07 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For Jim Thompson, Savage Night and maybe A Hell of a Woman are the best examples. 

A lot of Harlan Ellison; a lot of Kate Wilhelm.

Wieland? Dhalgren? Ubik?

By on 08/09/07 at 11:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Would Eco’s ‘Island of the Day Before’ qualify?

By on 08/10/07 at 05:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Edward Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar.

Almost anything by Ford Madox Ford.

By on 08/10/07 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wilson Harris, *The Palace of the Peacock*
Toni Morrison, *Paradise*
Kathy Acker, *Blood and Guts in High School*

By on 08/10/07 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Two possible interpretations that were intended by the author; one other that was put in there after ...

By Henry on 08/10/07 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The last chapter of Nella Larsen’s Passing.

The last part (book three) of Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I guess Dick’s Ubik qualifies, though if not for the very last chapter I wouldn’t think so.

There’s a once-famous short story by Robert Silverberg, “Sundance,” that certainly belongs to this category.

It makes sense that works of sf, where the novum or premise asks us to suspend our ideas of what’s real at the outset, should often belong to this category. (So much for David Hartwell’s claim that sf is the “other” of modernism.)

By Steve Burt on 08/10/07 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso, Chile. All the characters are insane and the narrative skips between past and present within sentences and gives two or more versions of reality within a breath. Hard enough working out which characters even exist. Amazing novel.

By BookTraveller on 08/10/07 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Our Story” by Frank Stockton.  Or, I suppose, “The Lady or the Tiger”.

By ben wolfson on 08/10/07 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe Knut Hamsun’s Pan?  I read it only once ages ago but I recall there being something funny going on with the ending.  Mysteries is pretty odd too but I can’t remember whether or not everything gets resolved.

Some of Shirley Jackson’s stories might fit.

By ben wolfson on 08/10/07 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

By nnyhav on 08/11/07 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Molloy, by Samuel Beckett, or any of the trilogy, but Molloy in particular. Why does Moran have to find Molloy? How/why are parts I and II connected? I could ask forever, and I’ll go on forever confused.

By on 08/11/07 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kleist’s “The Marquise von O” (is that the name? I’m not 100% sure). Some people don’t even pick up on the ambiguity, but once it pops, you just can’t stop.
You could say that we don’t know where Uncle Toby was wounded in Tristram Shandy, but maybe that’s too jokey to qualify.
<poker-faced> The Bible.

By on 08/12/07 at 06:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll agree with Holbo about David Lynch. Here’s my article about Zizek, Lynch, and unraveling ghost stories:

(scroll down to “Singular Lynch")


By theavantridiculous on 09/29/07 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: